Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sorting the Cairo Geniza

Computer Network Piecing Together a Jigsaw of Jewish Lore

Published: May 26, 2013

TEL AVIV — One scholar likened it to finding the orphaned socks for generations of a family. Another compared it to law-enforcement’s use of DNA databases and face-recognition software.

The idea is to harness technology to help reassemble more than 100,000 document fragments collected across 1,000 years that reveal details of Jewish life along the Mediterranean, including marriage, medicine and mysticism. For decades, scholars relied mainly on memory to match up pieces of the Cairo genizah, a treasure trove of papers that include works by the rabbinical scholar Maimonides, parts of Torah scrolls and prayer books, reams of poetry and personal letters, contracts, and court documents, even recipes (there is a particularly vile one for honey-wine).

Now, for the first time, a sophisticated artificial intelligence program running on a powerful computer network is conducting 4.5 trillion calculations per second to vastly narrow down the possibilities.

Not so long ago 4-terabyte-per-second computing speeds were science fiction.

This project is extraordinarily important and (as the first video linked below notes) could advance the field of Cairo Geniza studies by a generation in a matter of weeks. Fragments from collections all over the world can be compared (mainly by handwriting and fragment shape) and sorted preliminarily into individual manuscripts.

Two other articles have brief videos about the project: Arutz Sheva: High-Tech Solution to Judaism's 'Mystery of the Century'; Your Jewish News: Computer system to reconstruct 100,000 ancient Jewish documents found in Egypt.

Bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.

Much more on the Cario Geniza here, here, here, here and links. More on this particular digitization project is here and links. And for other manuscript digitization projects, go here and follow the many links.